Necessity drives innovation. As the needs of the Church continue to change, as new theological questions emerge in new contexts, and as pressures increase on traditional delivery systems that have developed over hundreds of years, theological education is in need of innovation.

However, in both theology and education, innovation comes slowly. Theology rightfully approaches innovation warily as it seeks to uphold historic orthodoxy. Education, especially higher education, develops within institutions that often progress slowly, deliberately, and methodically. Furthermore, as pressure for change builds, the question of who will drive innovation emerges. Which centers of activity might generate the most creative ideas?

In global business, the concept of “reverse innovation” indicates that some of the best ideas might flow in unexpected directions as new practices and models arise from emerging markets. In the same way, better solutions for the Church may come from those outside the historic centers of theological education. By challenging three assumptions that may limit innovation, this essay seeks to encourage those in “emerging markets” to think creatively in ways that may benefit the Church as a whole.

The Notion of Reverse Innovation

In their 2012 book, Reverse Innovation, Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble maintain that for multinational corporations to succeed, they must move beyond the prevailing assumption that the best ideas are first developed in established markets and then exported to new ones. In reality, some of the best ideas will come via “reverse innovation,” whereby ideas first developed and adopted in emerging markets eventually gain traction in dominant regions to the benefit of all.

Reverse innovation challenges corporations by shifting the centers of control, pushing product development beyond proven ideas, and often going against conventional wisdom and best practices. However, as Govindarajan and Trimble point out, reverse innovation is not so much about the “best practice” as it is about the “next practice” that will lead to success (272).

Best practices in all fi elds are important, but targets are misaligned, then improving execution alone will not help to accomplish the true objectives. New circumstances may require new solutions. Reverse innovation acknowledges that new markets provide fertile grounds for creative thinking and problem-solving. The business world often adopts a “product out” mentality that simply looks for new markets for proven commodities. Products may be modified – often simplified – to meet lower price points, reflect regional tastes, and engage local supply chains. However, this approach builds on assumptions that do not always hold true, and may actually inhibit creativity and growth.

Challenging Three Assumptions

Govindarajan and Trimble expose assumptions and present case studies that provide interesting analogs for the world of theological education, where gaps in exported approaches to curriculum design, methodology, and content have been well-documented. Principles from reverse innovation may help to guide theological educators in pursuit of better solutions for preparing leaders for Kingdom work.

Assumption One: Needs are universal.

The assumption is that customers in poorer markets simply need cheaper versions of products that are popular in higher-end markets. It fails to account for the fact that new contexts have new and different needs, which may not be met by existing products and approaches.

Computer peripherals maker Logitech assumed that their market-leading computer accessories from the West would eventually succeed in China. They began by introducing cheaper versions of their products, assuming that as Chinese consumers became more affluent, they would ”graduate” to Logitech’s higherpriced mainstream products.

However, Logitech soon learned that the Chinese company Rapoo surpassed them in the Chinese market not only because they made a cheaper mouse, but also because their product better met consumer needs. It turns out that Chinese consumers had special needs for mouse range, speed, and shielding due to context-specific issues such as high-density housing and popular use of the computer mouse to control internet-delivered television content. Rapoo thus created a better product because they did not assume that the Chinese market would simply follow the Western one. While Logitech assumed that the Chinese market would one day “graduate” to their better products, Rapoo developed higher-end peripherals that met the particular needs of Chinese consumers.

Theological educators sometimes assume that training needs for Christian leaders are universal. While certain aspects of discipleship, spiritual nurture, and biblical understanding are indispensable for all followers of Christ, the formation of Christian leaders is not a homogenous process. Ministers require particular skill sets that address the needs of the Church as it responds to the unique cultural, societal, and theological needs of its context. Differing needs may require differing approaches to theological education in terms of curriculum design, content, or pedagogical models.

Assumption Two: Progress develops iteratively from previous models.

The assumption is that improvement begins with the existing product, which is then refi ned to increase market share. However, progress may require listening more carefully to the market and developing an entirely different approach in response to emerging needs.

As the second largest agricultural producer in the world, India was a natural market for John Deere tractors. Iterative design improvements upon previous models had enabled Deere to develop top products in the US. They followed this successful design model while developing a new tractor for India. They knew that Indian farmers had much smaller land plots than the large conglomerates in the US, so they created a smaller, cheaper version of their leading tractor. Yet, they gained negligible market share in India.

Meanwhile, the Indian tractor company Mahindra and Mahindra emerged as the dominant tractor maker in the country. Unlike Deere, which had built its tractor based on the previous year’s model, Mahindra began their design process by interviewing farmers. They discovered that Indian farmers used tractors in vastly different ways than American farmers. Indian farmers used their tractors not only to plow and harvest fields, but also as all-purpose vehicles for non-farm activities, such as transporting family and goods to town. Therefore, they had greater interest in fuel efficiency, issues related to use during rainy and dry seasons, ease of maintenance, and durability due to increased hours of usage.

Mahindra excelled because they did not use an inherited product as their starting point. They did not limit creativity to the existing product line. They did not assume that the Indian market would necessarily follow the Western one. They did not automatically build on previous practices. Instead, they first identified the needs of their clients and then built a product that met those particular needs. In doing so, they have both penetrated the US market and become the number one tractor manufacturer worldwide, based on units sold. John Deere has subsequently revamped their joint venture in India, implementing practices learned from Mahindra.

Previous successes and best practices play an important role in theological education. However, a clean-slate approach may sometimes lead to innovations that better suit contextual needs. In the same way that Mahindra relied on teams to explore the needs of their market, theological educators need to listen closely to the differing and changing needs of the Church in diverse contexts, and remain open to fresh approaches. Discoveries may lead to new designs that depart from previous iterations, but also prove more effective in equipping leaders for ministry in new contexts.

Assumption Three: Current institutional structures are necessary to accomplish objectives.

Frameworks and infrastructures designed to support certain objectives can become entrenched, sometimes limiting the ability to meet new objectives. As a leading manufacturer of ultrasound technology, General Electric (GE) found it difficult to penetrate the market in China. Sales lagged in part because few hospitals and clinics had the required infrastructure for supporting technology designed for Western hospitals, let alone the resources to purchase such expensive machines.

Frustrated with slow sales, GE mobilized a team in 2002 to develop a new product that could meet the needs of Chinese healthcare providers and patients. GE discovered that they needed a product with a lower price point, as well as significant portability and efficiency. By 2010, they had developed a handheld ultrasound scanner that not only generated a seventy-fold increase in profit, but also became a standard instrument in global healthcare. The portable technology stretched beyond the obstetrician’s office, enabling use by paramedics, as well as in emergency and operating rooms.

If GE had limited itself to the prevailing assumption that ultrasound imaging required a large machine located in a specially designated space within the sterile environment of a healthcare facility, then the handheld scanner would not exist. Fortunately, GE’s creative response to the need for more affordable and accessible technology led not only to success in the Chinese market, but also to a better product that would be used throughout the world. Thinking outside the box opened powerful avenues for innovation and progress.

Traditional theological educational structures are based on monastic and European university models. These structures are now facing challenges related to rising costs, decreased ability of students to commit to long-term residential studies, and increased demand for shorter program durations. In both the West and the Majority World, some seminaries have responded with new program offerings, utilizing technology or modular formats that move away from the traditional long-term residential model. As theological education explores new structures, new questions also arise, relating to spiritual formation, community-building, and the right amount of time needed to adequately prepare ministers. Further innovation addressing affordability and portability is needed.

Implications

The concept of reverse innovation will hopefully encourage theological educators to explore new ideas in response to new and changing needs, even if it means moving beyond or even against conventional approaches. As the Church has grown, new needs have also emerged. To meet these needs, some forms of innovation may build on existing practices by making modifications, incorporating regional insights, and employing local teachers. Other forms may require new models, new curricula, and new programs altogether. The pressures and needs remain, creating opportunities for innovative solutions in whichever direction they may flow.

References

Govindarajan, Vijay and Chris Trimble. Reverse Innovation: Create Far from HomeWin Everywhere. First eBook Edition. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Evan Hunter

Evan’s passions for the Church and the seminary shape his work as Vice President for the ScholarLeaders LeaderStudies program and as Executive Editor for the InSights Journal for Global Theological Education. He joined ScholarLeaders in 2004 after working as a missions pastor and in campus ministry. He also serves on several boards, including those of the International Council for Evangelical Theological Education, Northern Pines Christian Family Camp, and Tyndale House Foundation. Located in Minnesota, Evan and his wife Becky keep up with three very active sons.